Of Love and Unknowns

There is a species of apologetic moves that I seriously dislike, mainly because they seem so empty on the face of it that when intelligent people say such things, I wonder if there is any point to the conversation any more. I run into these moves coming more from thoughtful, liberal religious people than from conservatives, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they have universal appeal.

A recent article by Lisa Miller on Newsweek has two of these moves on display. First,

Submitting faith to proof is absurd. Reason defines one kind of reality (what we know); faith defines another (what we don’t know). Reasonable believers can live with both at once.

Arggh! The unknown is just the unknown, not a sign of the supernatural!

In physics, for example, we get plenty of opportunity to get acquainted with the unknown as yet (but we’re working on it), the unknown but we don’t have much of a clue (but we can speculate), the unknown but we don’t care (not interesting), the unknown because there is probably nothing to be known (random), the unknown because we forgot, and more in a large taxonomy of varieties of the unknown. None of these unknowns are something we worship, something we look to for cosmic meaning, something that grants eternal life, or something that creates the universe. An unknown is not an excuse for anthropomorphism. An unknown is not a mystery—not in the religious, “mystification” sense of mystery. An unknown is not a void in our being crying out for a leap of faith. It’s just bleeding unknown.

And then, Miller quotes Lorenzo Albacete, one of the strange breed who are priest-physicist combinations. A lot of them are real experts at mystification, but Albacete goes for one of the old favorites:

Faith is like trying to explain to your uncomprehending family why you have fallen in love with so-and-so. They have all the arguments, and you can understand what they’re saying, but you can’t help it, you’re in love.

Sigh. From where I stand, faith is more like explaining to your uncomprehending family why you’re forty and still have an imaginary friend, but let that pass. What I want to know is why this love vs. evidence juxtaposition is such a popular apologetic move.

Maybe it’s because faith is like love—a species of insanity. I’m serious. I love my wife, but that’s a different feeling than the utter brainless infatuation I endured when I first fell in love with her. Half my brain, I think, shut down at the time. I can see it’s useful for pair-bonding and propagation of the species and so forth, but I never want to live through anything like that again. What the apologetic move relies on, I guess, must be a sense of “knowing” that might accompany love, that may seem unrelated to any normal cognitive process but infused with certainty, especially if you’re suffering from the condition. You damn well know, and to hell with any consideration of evidence. All I can say is that thankfully, you get over infatuation eventually. Mature love and trust requires a lot more than acting like a hormone-addled idiot.

Then there’s the idea that acting lovingly in a relationship of trust requires us to disregard evidence. The issue is trust, and a skeptical evaluation of evidence demands an unacceptable distancing of ones self from the relationship. Even briefly setting aside trust eventually undermines trust. Maybe. (I’m not convinced.) But again, I don’t see how this kind of blind trust has much to do with the well-earned trust within a solid relationship, never mind that cognitively it’s still bleeding useless.

I suspect that one reason for the popularity of such apologetic moves is that they’re conversation-stoppers. The skeptic gets reduced to a state of sputtering incomprehension when faced with the inanity of the statement, and the believer walks off with a beatific smile.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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